After Villa Carlotta the next stop on a well-planned garden tour would be the gardens of Villa del Balbianello, one ferry stop down the lake. Facilissimo! Not quite. First of all, Mondays and Wednesdays the garden is closed. Then there’s the question of how to get there. You can take a water taxi, but if you’re not too steady on your feet, this may not be an option. A lot of people decide not to try it once they see what is involved in boarding the small motor boats. And unlike the ferries that seem to run no matter how brutto the tempo, when the lake is roiling with white caps, the small boats stayed tied up in the harbour.
That leaves one more option. Not far from the water taxi stand is the entrance to a pathway across the promontory. A sign at the gate advises visitors the walk involves un tratto in salita (an uphill stretch) and takes 25 minutes. CIRCA. And one more thing. In addition to Mondays and Wednesdays when the entire garden is closed, the pedestrian access is also closed Thursdays and Fridays.
I knew nothing of any of this on my first visit to Lake Como. I just got lucky. The following photos are old and taken on a hand-me-down camera, but I think they’ll give you the gist of the place.
Whenever you come across an Italian garden with restricted access it usually means one of two things – it’s either a private garden, like the Giardini del Biviere in Sicily (The Garden That Once Upon a Time Wasn’t There, July 26, 2015) or it was once private property and to ensure its survival the last owners set up a foundation, as the Caetani family did for the Gardens of Ninfa (Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village, Feb. 15, 2015) or bequeathed the property to an existing foundation. Guido Monzino, the last owner of Villa Balbianello, chose to bequeath his property to FAI. The letters stand for Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano. Ambiente is one of those ‘coat of many colours’ words. As one Italian commentator pointed out, it has so many meanings and is used in so many contexts, many Italians feel the need to tack on a qualifier, as in ambiente naturale, ambiente fisico, ambiente sociale, ambiente studentesco, ambiente rivoluzionario and così via (koh-zee vee-uh) And on and on. Given all the confusion it creates for native speakers, imagine the problems it causes translators. On the back page of the booklet I (begrudgingly) bought when I found out photos of the interior of Villa Balbianello are VIETATO, the FAI people themselves translate it as ‘Italian Fund for the Environment’ in one place and ‘the National Trust for Italy’ in another. In any event, its mission is ‘to save, protect and care for the artistic and natural heritage of Italy.’ One of the ways it suggests we can help it is to visit the properties in its care. This can be a challenge, but in my experience is always worth it. In the end.
Back to Monzino, whose will included a generous fund for the upkeep of the property he wished to donate. As well as a couple of conditions. In front of the villa – the building on the left in the photo above – is a large, mushroom-shaped tree. It’s a Leccio (Holm Oak). The window in the middle of the villa, just above the Holm Oak is in Monzino’s library. Because the tree was carefully trimmed, by hand, once a year, from his desk Monzino had a clear view of Bellagio, which despite a life spent travelling around the world remained his favourite view. He led the 1st Italian expedition to climb Mt. Everest and filled his home with priceless artifacts (hence the NO PHOTOS rule) collected on his journeys, including one room which for me was one of the most unexpected and weirdest experiences of that trip – I felt as if I’d been suddenly been transported back to Canada – it was stuffed with Canadiana – canoes, trappers’ outfits and tools, flags, furs from the far north. In any event, in spite of all the wondrous sites he’d seen, Monzino’s favourite view remained the one from his library window. So in his will he stipulated that the leccio continue to be trimmed by hand as it had been during his lifetime. This takes days of course and if you’re lucky enough to visit during its annual trim, you’ll be treated to the incongruous sight of the gardeners’ heads popping up willy nilly from inside the tree.
The second condition had to do with his burial place. Sommariva and Melzi were long dead by this time, and lay buried, as they had stipulated in their respective wills, facing each other from opposite sides of the lake. When his turn came (1988), Monzino wanted to be buried along the shore as well – but instead of facing any rivals he might have had – bad karma anyway I would think – he had something more serene in mind. The view which had given him so much pleasure in life.
When you come around the point of the promontory you see for the first time just how narrow it is – and why the early closing time in fall is a good, if inconvenient idea. The magic of the garden comes from the narrow terracing up the slope and the deliberately restricted palette of greens – bay laurel, box, ilex ivy – elaborately pruned, which combine to create the illusion of a much bigger space.
Despite its relatively small size, Villa Balbianello has been a popular destination among Europe’s aristocratic and artistic elites ever since it was ‘discovered’ by travellers on the Grand Tour. More recently it has become a favourite with movie directors. “A Month by the Lake” with Vanessa Redgrave, “Casino Royale” (remember the sanatorium where Daniel Craig as Bond recovers?) and many scenes from ‘Episode II, Attack of the Clones’ were filmed here. By the way, if you’re a fan of the Star Wars series and none of these scenes looks familiar, not to worry. The director, George Lucas, was not happy with the background scenery and had it replaced using a computer generated special effects program called CGI. There really is no accounting for taste.
When I was checking which movies had been filmed here, I discovered that many tourists are attracted to the site not because of the gardens, but as part of a kind of scavenger hunt. The idea is to take selfies of yourself in the exact location of scenes from favourite movies. Notwithstanding Lucas’ altering of the background scenery, Balbianello seems to be especially popular with fans of the Star Wars series. Google ‘Villa Balbianello/Star Wars’ and you’ll see they have a lot of fun with this. Some people are crazy about gardens. Others about …well, to each his own.
The time had come to get back behind the wheel and continue my journey through northern Italy, But first, a few words about the restaurant where I had supper every night of my stay on Lake Como. Not something I usually do. But this was not a usual restaurant. This was the Cucina della Marianna, a restaurant with a self-described “cucina ‘NON DEMOCRATICA”.
Over at the Ristorante Il Caminetto (last week’s post) on the other side of the lake, Chef Moreno had found our English use of words like ‘seasons’ and ‘seasonings’ confusing, but Italian gives the English speaker lots to trip up on too. Cucina, for example, can mean the place where food is prepared or the food itself. I’m not sure if I mentioned earlier that in the interests of maintaining marital bliss, the couple who owned the Alberghetto della Marianna had divided the business into two separate fiefdoms. Paola ran the hotel side of things and her husband, Ty, ran the restaurant. One morning, instead of getting bagnata fradicia (ban-yah-tuh frah-dee-chah) which is so wet there is an entire photo website dedicated to it, I spent a couple of hours in the cucina of the Cucina della Marianna watching Ty prepare one of his undemocratic dinners.
Ty was a naturally generous talker. His mother had been a great cook, but like Chef Moreno, Ty had grown up in an era when the kitchen was off-limits to males. So when he left home and got his first job – not in a restaurant – he didn’t know the first thing about cooking. In the vast majority of jobs this wouldn’t have been a problem, but Ty followed a less travelled path. He worked in an experimental program set up in the early 1970’s. Instead of jail, a group of young miscreants was sent to live in a pseudo family situation under the care of a few, altruistic young men who acted in loco parentis. Since this had never been done – at least not in the area – there were a few initial glitches, the most pressing of which was that none of the ‘parents’ knew how to cook. Ty took up the challenge – after all, it wasn’t as if any of them – employees or their wards – had any other options – and discovered that he loved it. In time he became a bona fide chef with his own cucina and although he can make all the classic dishes, he prefers to experiment. Take fusion cuisine. Normally, he explained, fusion means you take ingredients from all over the world and combine them into something new. He instead takes ideas from all over the world and uses local ingredients to come up with new dishes.
Ty estimates the clientele for his restaurant is about 5% of the general tourist population. A rather low figure, even taking into account the location – a bit removed from the centre of Cadenabbia. Too far, apparently, for the vast majority of tourists. Also, he continued, the people who enjoy eating his food have to meet four criteria. I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I like food, but I am no foodie. Would I pass muster? Oblivious to my discomfort – he was busy chopping vegetables at this point – he listed the four criteria. 1. you eat good food at home (no problem there and I have the grocery bills to prove it); 2. you know how to cook (ditto); 3. you are educated about food (hmmm…’educated’ is a big word, not sure about that one) and 4. you are curious about food. OK – 3/4 wasn’t bad. I felt up to giving it a go.
There was one more thing. When unsuspecting, first-time visitors arrive at the door and ask if there is a table available, Ty answers, ‘Dipende da voi.‘ (It depends on you.) The would-be clients of course exchange more or less startled looks, which become even more or less startled as the unorthodox restaurant greeter goes on to explain that his is a cucina non-democratica. Ty likens the effect this has to the proverbial parting of the waters. Some immediately beat a hasty retreat. Others, intrigued, stay to find out more. And invariably to eat.
So what does Ty mean by an ‘undemocratic’ restaurant? Each month he creates a new weekly menu and – here comes the undemocratic part – there is only one offering for each day and he alone decides what the theme for that meal will be. The week I was there, the theme for Tuesday (Monday is the weekly giorno di chiusura) was ‘Il Peperoncino in Cucina (every dish contained chilli peppers – even the dessert – a delicious chocolate and pear pudding’); Wednesday was ‘Il Menù della Nonna (Grandma’s Menu); Thursday was ‘Il Menù dell’Orto’ (this was inspired by local vegan friends of his – it wasn’t my favourite, but it was interesting – and I could barely eat anything anyway after the feast at Il Caminetto) and Friday was ‘Il Menu di Lago‘. I for one was relieved to see that Ty had foregone the ‘Lake Menu’ theme when it came to the dessert – a delicious hazelnut mousse.
When I woke up the next morning, the day I had to leave Lake Como, il tempo si era rimesso. The weather had put itself back together. With mixed feelings I took one last look.
Next – Lake Garda